Editor’s note: Richard Wong is a venture capitalist with Accel Partners, an investor in AdMob, GetJar, and SunRun, and a former mobile industry executive. In this guest post he argues that the fragmentation of mobile devices and platforms is here to stay, and offers some advice to entrepreneurs on how to deal with it.
Mobile data is on fire. Despite a few false starts, we are now in the midst of a transformative “Open Mobile 3rd Wave” (remember WAP, and J2ME?). We are just in the early swell of the wave; the iPhone itself is not even three years old, and thanks to continued improvements we’re now seeing in smart phones, mobile OS platforms and 3G/4G networks, the raw ingredients are just getting better every month.
Per the views of many mobile denizens and thought-leaders such as well-known internet analyst Mary Meeker of Morgan Stanley, I certainly believe there will emerge new industry-transforming Facebooks, Googles, and Yahoos in this mobile wave.
FRAGMENTATION & COMPLEXITY
However, a key topic discussed by us mobile geeks and startups is the challenge of mobile platform fragmentation. There is an alphabet soup of protocols, standards, and regional differences by country which can be daunting for any entrepreneur. Just look at the range of technologies on handset platforms alone, from iPhone to Android to Blackberry, and even new platforms announced in last 30 days, from WinMo7, to MeeGo, to Samsung Bada, as if we need more platforms to deal with . . .
THE MAGIC BULLET—IT DOESN’T EXIST
One of the worst myths floating around the blogosphere is the wait by some for a “unifying technology” that will make things “simpler and easier” to develop services and apps for the global mobile market. At times, some have claimed that Java (J2ME) was the answer, then Flash Lite, then Webkit browsers, and most recently HTML5. While each solution has its merits, there will not be any unification anytime soon. Even as HTML5 richness has improved substantially, browser support will still vary and many, many phones will not support HTML5 for 7+ years.
Anyone who is waiting for a single silver bullet to solve fragmentation issues in mobile will be waiting a very long time, especially if they want to go after the global mobile opportunity. As such, it is important for mobile entrepreneurs to wade in and sort it out for themselves. No one is going to flatten the industry such as Microsoft did in the PC-era to make it simple.
THE REALPOLITIK: COMMON STANDARDS = COMMODITY STANDARDS FOR MANY
The realpolitik is that Mobile is truly global, and serves an extremely wide range of countries and users. There will naturally be a wide breadth of technologies, from CDMA vs GSM protocols, J2ME vs BREW, Mobile Apps vs Mobile Web, xHTML vs HDML, SMS vs MMS and others to serve this market.
Ask former execs of PSINet (bankrupt operator), AST (bankrupt PC maker) & Packard Bell (bankrupt PC maker) about the impact of the WINTEL “standard” on other PC industry players, and you’ll get a sense why Nokia, Motorola,Verizon, & Sprint aren’t rushing to follow their PC-era predecessors. Common standards = commodity standards for many players in this industry. Sadly, whether or not there is an elegant technical answer, it will be hard to drive any single set of worldwide standards given the different economic incentives of the many players, however good it would be for developers.
OK, SO AS A MOBILE ENTREPRENEUR WHAT DO YOU DO?
What do you do as a mobile entrepreneur in the face of this complexity? If you’re going to be successful, the winning entrepreneurs in mobile will have to learn to navigate these waters. There’s no simple shortcut. Several thoughts:
There’s an incredible startup and wealth-creating opportunity in this new arena of Open Mobile. The smartest entrepreneurs will not wait for these fragmentation issues to be solved but are figuring out now how to pick a use case, a core platform, and geography to bound their problem and get going. Once you have initial momentum, you can pick through these fragmentation landmines, and make a 2nd and 3rd step. Don’t wait for the unifying technology to solve these issues before diving in. Its going to be an exciting time to build great mobile companies this next 5-7 years. See you out there.
SMS – short message system otherwise known as text messaging
MMS – multimedia messaging system (originated as photo messaging from J-phone in Japan)
CDMA – code division multiplexing – pioneered and still very controlled by Qualcomm – Sprint, Verizon & MetroPCS use this protocol
GSM – Global System for Mobile, the standard in Europe and most of the world – AT&T & T-Mobile use this protocol
J2ME – Java Mobile Edition (often paired with class library profile called MIDP2)
BREW – Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless – a Qualcomm owned initiative as alternative to J2ME
XHTML – multi modality markup language
WML – the original markup language of the WAP Forum which allowed more efficient use of bandwith constrained mobile networks (i.e.. less chatty)
WURFL – wireless universal resource file – open source config file of wireless devices
MOMO – Mobile Monday community of mobile entrepreneurs supporting other mobile entrepreneurs
(@Rich_Wong is a Partner @Accel_Partners and works with mobile investements Admob and Getjar ( among others) and was previously an operating exec at mobile technology provider Openwave Systems. See www.accel.com/rpw_presos for additional data around the mobile ecosystem. Disclosure: Accel Partners is an investor in Admob, Amobee, Getjar, Mig33, Medio, MetroPCS, as referenced above)
Richard joined Accel in 2006 with an interest in software, mobile and internet services. Rich led Accel’s investment in Angry Birds (Rovio) and serves on the boards of Atlassian, the leader in software for streamlining product development; SunRun, the leading provider of residential solar power; MoPub, a leader in mobile ad platforms; Dealer.com, a leading vertical SaaS company in automotive, MobileSpaces, a mobile enterprise security company, Qwilt, a provider of video optimization technology; Getjar Networks, the largest mobile development...
Accel Partners is a global venture capital firm with offices located in Silicon Valley, New York, London, China, and India. They typically make multi-stage investments in internet technology companies. Founded in 1983, Accel Partners has a long history of excellence and innovation in the venture capital business and is dedicated to partnering with outstanding entrepreneurs and management teams to build world-class companies. Accel today invests globally using dedicated teams and market-specific strategies for local geographies, with offices in Palo...